Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Milestone 2: Our car-buying process

Hey everyone!

A and I have been really busy over the past month that we've been here. It's been exactly 31 days since we touched down in Melbourne. And by the grace of God and loving help from our friends, we have come a very long way since we first arrived as two blur Singaporeans with our three bike boxes, two SAF duffel bags and other luggage.

I will do my best to respond to all the comments that we haven't adequately addressed. Truth be told, we don't have most of the answers and we are still learning about life here.

Buying a car

This isn't going to be much of a guide, it's more of the process we went through while car-hunting. This was done simultaneously with house-hunting, and it's very important that you have a decent mobile plan which covers the usage that you need. Lebara's Unlimited plan (running on Vodafone network) as mentioned in an earlier post has been good, though the coverage is inferior to Telstra's prepaid service Boost. I simply used to search for the model of car I wanted, and shortlisted the vehicles which fit my desired age and mileage range.

Useful steps for car buying:

1. Know what you want.

Sounds duh. But if you are considering between a brand new Ford Fiesta ST and a used Subaru Forester XT like I was, you have some serious issues. I eventually got the Forester, but I'd still like the Fiesta ST. And a BMW M3, Mazda MX5... 

Ok so I'm a petrolhead. But think through your needs and wants and budget, then decide on the make and model you are shortlisting.

Do note that driving in the city is a MEGA PAIN IN THE ASS whatever car you drive. You do NOT want to drive in the city on a regular basis. Cycling is the best form of transport, followed by public transport, IMHO. Bear that in mind when choosing your vehicle.

You'd probably want to spring a little more for a model with cruise control for the occasions you see an empty road in built-up areas. Think about what you want to do on weekends as well. Attack winding country roads? Camping? Light off-roading?

Just buy a Forester XT like I did. Unless you have a big budget, then the Volvo, BMW, and Porsche SUVs are awesome too (good luck with servicing). Or the Range Rover Sport (again, good luck with servicing). But then you'd probably be able to afford brand new and not need this rubbish guide anyway.

If you must have a small Automatic city car, then you have my condolences. Just avoid anything with a CVT transmission. If you have to ask what a CVT is, then I don't think I can help you at all (not because I expect everyone to know what a CVT is, but because there's this thing called Google...)

2. Shortlist.

I can't give a number. I bought the third Forester we viewed. I also viewed two WRXes, before coming to my senses and realizing that the mighty Rex wasn't going to cut it for our planned outback adventures. More about our first adventure in some future blog post. I had also shortlisted another five to six Rexes, and five more Foresters. I didn't feel the need to view all of them once I had viewed the first few cars. It also helped that I am a former Subaru owner, having had a WRX STi when we were living in SG.

3. Spam

The more the merrier. You will want to add all  shortlisted sellers to your contact list. Since I was looking at multiple models, my contact list looked like this: "Elias Carsales Forester", "Jim Carsales WRX", Marina Gumtree Forester"... Etc... Ok, I admit that I didn't hunt for cars on Gumtree, but they are advertised there too.

Send them all a generic SMS, but make sure you update the model of the car (if you are shopping for more than one), offer price (because their asking prices are different and you may want to offer more for lower-mileage), and their names. Once you come up with your own SMS template, you can reuse it for as many cars as you like, without sounding rude or anything.

4. Look, listen, smell, drive

Short of taste. You are buying a secondhand car here, and unless you have the cash to splurge on fairly new cars still under warranty, you are on your own.

Look for uneven panel gaps. Look for weird stains on the exhaust. Any oil or carbon stains? The engine might be an oil burner or be poorly-tuned. My car had both, suggesting that it was possibly an accident vehicle and is running slightly rich. But it's turbocharged, so hopefully... Well, you, dear reader, can learn from my mistake.

Smell. Does the exhaust smell bad or abnormal once the car is warmed-up? A cold engine will emit more unburned hydrocarbons (basically bad smells, or good smells if you have a substance abuse issue) until the catalytic convertor has warmed up, so that's normal. Does the interior smell bad? If it smells very strongly of something you don't like, factor in the cost of steam cleaning. Or simply, pass.

Incidentally, you can buy your own hand-held steam cleaner for about $30 brand new, but I digress.

Sound. Does everything sound ok? Open and close the doors, windows, flick the signal indicators, turn the steering wheel when the engine is on. Do everything. Listen.

For me, the drive mattered above all. Having excluded two very delicious Rexes, it was a fight between three Forester XT manuals. The third one with weird gaps, spoilt drivers's window (possible impact there?) and black exhaust tip drove the best of all, and had the slickest gearshift. It also had the lowest mileage by far.

5. Dealer or private owner? Ex-fleet vehicle?

In Oz, there are many agencies which buy vehicles in bulk for their employees' usage. My Forester started its service with some Tasmanian water services company. Of course, I didn't manage to find this out until today, about three weeks after getting the car. Did it matter? One of the two "reject" Foresters was an ex-fleet vehicle as well, and I didn't reject it on that basis.

Any vehicle which is purchased in 'bulk' is likely to be of a more reliable model. Of course, it's less likely to be driven with care and taken care of diligently, as compared to an enthusiast like myself.

On the plus side...

- It's likely to be serviced regularly at an authorised dealer
- It's highly unlikely to have been illegally-modified
- It's not likely to have been driven by the ex-owners' teenaged son or daughter
- Not so likely to have pets or babies and their associated residues...

Anyway, I was looking for a Forester XT of a certain mileage and price range, so I didn't have much choice.

I also swung towards buying from a dealer, as opposed to two prior private owners. A dealer gives three months and 5000km warranty. Not much, but certainly better than NONE. Of course, in the worst case scenario, I could have got a shit dealer who wouldn't honor it. But Pierre Collet Motors along Burwood Highway does. I discovered my foglights and rear wiper weren't working sometime after collecting my car, and popped by one day when it was one the way. Drew Collet (the founder's son) was apologetic about it and got everything sorted in about 20 minutes.

Of course, these niggles should have been settled before handing over the car. But it was also my fault for not doing my due diligence.

A dealer also settles all the paperwork for you. Short of car insurance which I decided to get on my own.

If you think about it, while many horror stories of dishonest dealers abound, there must also be dishonest private owners, and dealers have a lot more to lose. But I must say that I think I was pretty lucky to have found a decent dealer. Your mileage may vary....

6. Mileage

As my good fellow migrant friend told me, "High mileage is not an issue. In fact it may mean mostly highway kms".

My take on this is: Look for milestones. Is the car due for a Timing Belt change in 10,000kms? Has it done say, 170,000km on its original clutch?

Signs like this indicate expensive major servicing is coming up. Factor this in when you bargain.

7. Documentation

Receipts, service logs, anything. You can learn a lot about the service history. My car was serviced at slightly erratic intervals (up to 16,000kms between servicing). Not a good thing, but the dealer was honest about it. The timing belt was recently changed with full receipts, at a Subaru dealership. That's a good sign. The comprehensive receipt also lets me know exactly what I need to change at the next round, and what can last a bit longer.

Incidentally, I know Subaru owners in SG think that turbo Subarus need to be serviced every 5000km. The interval stipulated in Oz for the Forester is 12,500km. And that's with 5W-30 oil.

I guess that's why I'm getting about 10km/l for my typical urban mix and 11km/l for extra-urban, including mountainous roads (I believe the downhills compensate fully for the uphills, no fuel consumption penalty at all!)

Now that's pretty decent for a fully-loaded SUV with full-time AWD and with me boosting the turbo occasionally (pedal floored, second gear to redline when entering freeway).

Not bad at all...

- S


  1. +1 to cycling to work.
    10km/l is decent for that make so the system should still be running fine. I find a common thing to replace earliest after a used car purchase is the CV joint. Check it out when you are free, you will be unlikely to find the boots in perfect condition. Nonetheless even if you find small cracks, it'll be 6-12 months or longer before you need to worry about it. On top of the usual suspects such as timing belt, water pump or radiator, the rest will be the unlimited parts that will leak, such as rings, gaskets or even old hoses (my power steering hose just burst but it cost me very little to change it) learn things the hard way as well, but the right way, if you ask me.

    1. Dude, you are spot on about the CV. In fact at the dealership, there was also a workshop, so I requested for the car to be jacked up and I found grease leakage at the CV joint. The dealer said that he would replace it and I trust that he did (I'll peek again in two months time before warranty runs out!)

      My car is not so old at 106,000kms. The Tasmania water people must not be too hardworking.

      And to the anon commenter below, I paid $15k for it. Some commented good deal, some said it was ex, but either way it's DONE DEAL so I'm gonna live with it. Am very happy with the car, actually :).

      We just got back from a road trip and our fully loaded Fozzie was a dream to chuck around the bends of the Great Alpine Road and other delicious roads. Not quite the WRX STi I was used to, but I can't complain. Not much chance to enjoy the STi back in SG and even in the Cameron Highlands. There is far, far more traffic in the Camerons than on the scenic drives we did recently in Victoria. The sealed roads in the Victorian countryside are also better than those you'd encounter in Malaysia. In fact the country roads seem to be as smooth as Singapore roads (which aren't the best in the world, but not too bad). It's the city roads that are a real pain in terms of poor surfacing, tram tracks etc... :p. Not that it bothers me much in a AWD SUV


  2. HI..
    I enjoy reading your post!!

    So how much was the car ?


    1. Mr Nix, all CV joints checked correct. I've had to crawl under the car for various reasons, so I tried to check everything myself... With the dearth of multi-storey or basement carparks here, I'm hoping they don't get too much strain. then again with the way I drive, and off road.. :p